Gareth L Powell
Gareth Lyn Powell's short stories have appeared in Interzone, Best SF, Infinity Plus, Aphelion, Quantum Muse, and Nowa Fantastyka. His first collection of short stories will be published by Elastic Press in August 2008, and his first novel will be published by Pendragon Press in 2009.
Gareth is the author of the sci-fi short Sunsets and Hamburgers, which appeared in the January 2006 issue, won a Firebrand Great Fiction Award from SFreader.com. Sunsets and Hamburgers is available as a downloadable MP3 file.
Further details about Gareth's writing can be found on his blog.
All Pod wants to do is hang with his friends, Erik and Kai. But he can't, not any more. Not since the Clampdown. Not since the Elite looked down from their high orbit and decided to rationalise human society, to make it ordered and safe. Not since they sent him here, to the bridge, to work off his criminal debt.
He hates the bridge. He hates the stinging wind and the crashing waves. He hates the tedious, backbreaking work. But most of all, he hates his foreman, Fergus.
He hates Fergus for hurting Kai. Kai bungled a weld on one of the support girders, and so Fergus stamped on her spine until she couldn't walk. Now all Pod wants to do is kill Fergus. He lies in his bunk at night and dreams of smashing Fergus's head with a wrench, or pushing him over the railings into the sea. But deep down, he knows he won't. They've got him pumped so full of sedatives that he can't even get an erection, let alone pick a fight.
So, day after day he works on the bridge. The wind burns his skin, the sun makes him squint. But he gets through it by thinking of Kai, and remembering how good things used to be - how great it was when they used to hang out together at the diner by the docks in Tuckertown, where they could see the lights of the trawlers and laugh at the stink of the last of the day's fish guts being hosed off the quay.
They weren't into anything heavy back then, just stealing cars and joyrides. There were some fights, and some cars got burned, but no-one ever got killed. There were no knives or guns - it was all just for laughs, something to do when the rain came down and the markets closed for the night.
But then – on Pod's eighteenth birthday - the Elite came down in their shining silver saucers and everything changed, once and for all.
Erik says Fergus has a girl back in Tuckertown.
'So what?' Pod says. 'Everybody says they've got someone waiting for them.'
'It just shows he's human, is all,' Erik says. He looks thin. He's not eating. Fergus kicked him in the stomach a week ago and he hasn't been right since.
'Does it still hurt?' Pod says.
Erik rolls back over on his bunk and closes his eyes. 'I'll be okay,' he says.
Pod saw one of the Elite yesterday. It came to inspect the bridge. Even Fergus was terrified of it.
'What did it look like?' Erik asks. He missed it – he was in bed, recovering from the kicking.
Pod scratches his cheek. He badly needs a shave.
'Like a cockroach,' he says. 'A big, wet cockroach with claws like steak knives.'
Erik shivers and his eyes flick nervously to the ceiling.
'But that's not the worst,' Pod says. 'The worst is when they talk.'
'What does it sound like?'
Pod lies back on his bunk, an arm resting over his eyes.
'Like cats being sick,' he says.
Pod lost everything in the Clampdown – home, parents - everything except Erik and Kai.
He doesn't like to think about it. He prefers to remember Tuckertown as it was, before the saucers landed.
'Do you remember the burger stall on West Pier Street, by the tannery?' he says. 'And the girl that worked there, with the big tits?'
Erik doesn't answer. He's holding his stomach. There's a man crying a few bunks down the row, and a couple having furtive sex under a blanket in the far corner. The place reeks of piss and sweat, but Pod doesn't notice the smell much any more.
He scratches at a cut on his hand.
'And that bar on the corner, where Kai used to dance?' he says.
He tugs Erik's sleeve. 'Remember that?'
Erik shakes him off.
'Go to sleep,' he says.
Thinking of Kai brings the anger back. Pod lies awake, listening to Erik's ragged snore. If Erik dies, Pod's going to kill Fergus for sure - he doesn't know how yet, but he'll get him.
He pulls his right hand into a fist. The muscles in his palm feel like wires.
If Erik dies...
He rolls over into a foetal position, pulling the rough blanket over his head to hide the sudden hot tears that prick his eyes. He's eighteen years old, starving and desperate.
Tomorrow, the Chemist will be here. It's a small comfort, but he clings to it.
It's still dark outside when the dormitory lights go on. There are no showers. The workers sleep in their clothes. When the lights go on, they crawl out of their blankets and file toward the door, their breath clouding in the cold air.
Pod helps Erik.
'You've got to let me go to the hospital,' Erik says.
Pod shakes his head.
'They took Kai to the hospital and she never came back,' he says.
Erik grits his teeth. 'She had a broken back. That takes time to fix. And then she still wouldn't be any use here. They probably shipped her off to work in a factory or something.'
Pod grunts. He's got most of Erik's weight on his shoulders and he's in no mood to argue. He's seen the mass graves on the hill behind the camp, and he's got a pretty good idea where Kai ended up.
'It doesn't matter,' he says, 'I'm going to get you fixed up. You'll be okay.'
'How are you going to do that, Pod? My guts are wrecked. How are you going to fix that?'
Pod squeezes his arm.
'We're going to see the Chemist,' he says.
The Chemist's a man with a shiny suit and a thin face, like a weasel. He sits on a makeshift chair behind a makeshift desk in a makeshift office.
'What can I do for you?' he says, squinting up as they enter.
Pod helps Erik into a chair, and then leans on the desk.
'I need something for my friend here,' he says.
The Chemist looks down his nose at Erik.
'You want medical supplies?' he says. 'Why, what's wrong with him?'
Pod straightens up. 'He's messed up inside – he needs fixing.'
The man tuts and tsks to himself. He pulls a medical scanner from his bag and waves it at Erik. A red light appears on the display.
'Ah yes, an internal hemorrhage,' he says. 'And I'm afraid it's quite serious.'
'He's not going to the hospital,' Pod says firmly.
The Chemist sighs and puts the scanner down. 'In that case, he'll probably be dead in a day or so.'
He looks down at the papers on his desk, to signal that the interview's over. But Pod leans across and puts his hand over the passage the man's pretending to read.
'But you've got something that can help him, don't you?' he says.
The Chemist leans back, lip curled in distaste. He comes to the camp once a month, ostensibly to check on the health of the workers, but really to line his own pockets by smuggling in forbidden items, like cigarettes and heroin, to sell to them.
'Something powerful enough to fix that much damage won't come cheap,' he says.
Pod frowns. His palms are sweating, but there's no going back now.
'I want to pawn some memories,' he says.
The scanner the Chemist uses is Elite tech. It can cut and paste memories, lift them wholesale – including all their related associations – from one mind and drop them into another.
Pod sits back in the plastic chair, eyes closed.
'Try to make it a happy memory,' the Chemist says. 'The Elite pay so much more for happy memories.'
Pod grits his teeth. All he can think about is Tuckertown – the place he grew up in, the place he met Kai and Erik.
He remembers the harbour and the unloading trawlers; the downtown mall and the park behind it; and the alley where Kai used her mouth to take his virginity.
'Don't do it, for God's sake,' Erik pleads from across the room.
Pod waves him to silence – he's aware of the horror stories, and he's seen the zombies walking around the camp with their minds accidentally wiped. He knows the dangers, but he thinks it's worth the risk, to save his friend.
After all, he couldn't save Kai...
He tightens his grip on the arm of the chair. His hands are sweaty where they're gripping the plastic.
'Shut up,' he says.
He takes a deep breath, and then turns to the Chemist. 'Okay, I'm ready.'
The man presses the scanner hard against Pod's scalp.
'Concentrate,' he says.
Pod screws his eyes tight. He thinks of the sun coming up over the meat factory in Tuckertown, of a burning car reflected in the oily water of the canal. The scanner feels hot against his head.
'Lie still,' the Chemist says.
The heat increases. There's a moment of intense pain - sharp agony like trapped cats ripping at the inside of Pod's skull – and the world falls away, leaving only darkness.
When he wakes, it's late afternoon. He's lying on his bunk, back in the dormitory, and grey light slants in through the windows.
It's quiet – the rest of the workers are out on the bridge. For a moment, he thinks he's got the place to himself, and then he hears Erik cough. He rolls over.
'What happened?' he says.
Erik smiles crookedly.
'That weasel zapped you and you went down – bang! - like an epileptic.'
'Did it work?'
'I guess so – he gave me the pills.'
Pod props himself up on an elbow. 'Have you taken them? How are you feeling?'
Erik coughs. 'A bit better,' he says.
Pod scratches his head. He feels unusually alert, like a cold wind's blown through him.
'How long have I been asleep?'
'About three hours – Fergus is mad as hell. He tried to wake you, but I told him you were sick.'
Erik puts a hand on his arm. 'Do you feel different, Pod? Are the cobwebs gone?'
Pod frowns. He's clear-headed for the first time in months. His thoughts are lucid and sharp, like they used to be, before he came here.
'What did you do?' he asks suspiciously.
Erik grins. 'I talked the Chemist into selling me a stimulant - something strong enough to counteract the sedatives in our food.' He flips across an empty hypodermic and Pod catches it with his left hand.
'I told the weasel it was for me,' Erik says, 'to get me back to work faster. It cost everything we own – all the cigarettes, everything.'
Pod rubs a sore spot on his arm.
'And you injected me with it while I slept?'
Erik pulls a handkerchief from his pocket. It's old and torn, and it belonged to Kai. He passes it to Pod.
'I did it for her,' he says.
The wind's bitter as Pod steps onto the bridge holding the handkerchief. He looks up at the towers that support the suspension cables, as if seeing them for the first time. They shine in the blustery afternoon light, huge and solid, built to withstand the wind and tide.
Up ahead, he sees his crew. This week they're welding the safety rails on the windward side of the bridge. It's a dull and dirty job, but a lot less dangerous than some they've done.
As he gets closer – head down, shambling, Erik struggling to keep up - he sees Fergus watching him. The supervisor has a wooden cane in his hand. His eyes are slits and he's tapping the cane against his boot.
'Where the hell have you been?' he shouts as soon as Pod's close enough to hear him over the sound of the wind.
Pod doesn't try to reply. He remembers Fergus stamping on Kai's spine, and he remembers feeling angry - but the source of the anger's gone.
'I'm here to kill you,' he says. But even as the words leave his mouth he frowns, unsure if that's what he really wants.
Seeing his confusion, Fergus laughs.
'You bought some funny fungus from the Chemist, did you?'
Pod shakes his head, trying to summon up the determination he'll need to see this through. He walks over to one of his workmates and pulls the wrench from her hands. It's big and heavy, solid steel. He hefts it in one hand, and slaps it into his palm. He turns to face Fergus.
'I'm serious,' he says.
The other workers in the crew back away, scared. They think Pod's gone mad, and that he's going to get a beating – they don't suspect the stimulants burning in his veins.
And neither does Fergus, judging from his swagger.
'Come on then, try it,' he says.
Pod grins. He hasn't felt this good since... He stops and scratches his head.
It feels like there's something on the tip of his tongue, something important. He knows he's got to kill Fergus for what he did to Kai, but he can't remember why Kai's so important.
He looks at Erik.
Then he realises he can't remember anything beyond twelve months ago, when he first arrived here, on the bridge. He looks up, confused. Just how much of his memory has the Chemist taken?
Suddenly dizzy and nauseous, he leans on the safety rail for support. He needs time to clear his head, but he's not going to get it - he's challenged Fergus in front of the whole crew, and now Fergus will kill him, if he can't defend himself.
Pod uses the wrench to block the first blow. Fergus – used to the inept shambling of his drugged workers - grunts in surprise.
He strikes again, his technique crude but powerful. Pod blocks a blow to the head, another to the neck. Then Fergus's cane catches him across the shins. He cries out and jabs forward with the wrench, catching his tormentor in the chest. Fergus staggers back, cursing. He stabs out with the cane. Pod dodges the blow, but he's got the railing behind him and nowhere to go.
The next thrust catches him in the side, scraping his ribs. Fergus pulls back, lunges again, and the tip of the cane skewers Pod's thigh. He lashes out with a cry of pain. He steps forward and brings the wrench around in a swinging arc. Too late, Fergus tries to block the blow, and the solid steel wrench shatters his wrist. He cries out and Pod punches him in the face, knocking him flat on the tarmac.
Erik's holding a welding lance. Pod snatches it and leans over Fergus, really angry now. The blue flame roars in the cold air.
'Are you ready, fucker?' he says through clenched teeth. He leans in close. Fergus is still curled around the agony in his wrist. When he feels the heat of the flame, he whimpers.
'Please don't,' he says. 'Please, no. I've got a kid, in Tuckertown - a little girl. Please...'
He twists and turns, trying to get away from the hot flame, but Pod's kneeling on his legs.
'Tuckertown?' Pod says. The name's familiar. He's heard it mentioned around the camp, but when he tries to focus on it he comes up against something scratchy, like static.
In desperation, he grabs at the only thing he's certain of.
'You crippled my friend,' he says.
Fergus pulls a battered picture from his breast pocket, thrusts it in his face.
'Look at her,' he says desperately; 'Look at my little girl.'
Pod sits heavily on the wet tarmac. He's wanted to kill Fergus for months, but now Fergus is sobbing and the whole thing seems ridiculous and embarrassing.
'You've got a kid?' he says, turning the picture over in his hands.
Fergus swallows. 'Her name's Jess,' he says. 'She's three years old. If I get this section of the bridge finished on time, they'll let me see her.'
He's holding his broken wrist tight against his chest. Looking down at him, Pod feels sick. There's no satisfaction to be had here.
'You hurt my friend,' he says. He looks out at the grey horizon and it starts to rain. In his hand, the welding lance spits and hisses. Fergus can't take his eyes off it.
'Don't burn me,' he says. 'Don't burn me, and I'll get you out of here.'
Pod spits into the flame. 'You can't do that,' he says. 'You don't have the authority to do that.'
Fergus pushes himself upright, his back against the railings.
'There's something you should know,' he says.
Pod steps back, out of reach.
'What?' he says. He has the welding lance in one hand, the steel wrench in the other.
'Your parole came up,' Fergus blurts. 'You're free men.'
He glances at Erik.
'Both of you,' he says.
It takes Pod a while to understand.
'Look,' says Fergus, 'When your release order came through, I didn't tell you. You should've been out of here a couple of months back, but I kept you on because you're a good worker and I need to hit target – I need to see my little girl.' He's pale and his hands are shaking. He looks like he's going into shock.
'I was just trying to do my job,' he says.
Pod takes a shuddering breath. Two extra months stuck here, when he could've been at home with his memory intact...
He picks up Fergus's wooden cane and snaps it over his knee. Then he throws the two halves over the railing, into the sea. He throws the wrench and the blowtorch after them.
'So, if I walk down to the gates at the end of the bridge, they'll let me through? I'll be a free man?' he says.
Fergus nods. His teeth are clenched against the pain in his wrist.
'Please, just go,' he says. 'Go back to Tuckertown, and leave me alone.'
Pod limps away. His leg hurts and there's blood in his shoe. He limps down the slope of the bridge toward the security gates at the end, where the carriageway meets the land. Behind him, the rest of the work crew crowd in on their wounded supervisor. Despite the sedatives they've been given, they can see he's lost the advantage.
If Fergus screams as they begin kicking him, Pod doesn't hear it. He's holding tightly to Kai's handkerchief.
As he passes the dormitory hut, Erik catches up with him. Somewhere above the clouds, the sun's setting.
'Come on,' Pod says, 'we're leaving."
copyright © 2007, Gareth L. Powell